Vienna Teng: Warm Strangers
By: Corinne Ferraro
Teng is a classically-oriented pianist struggling to find her
songwriting voice in a pop arena.
She is also a songwriter
who had to answer the question, "What next?" after releasing a debut
of cathartic, autobiographical songs on first album, Waking Hour.
It is a common quandary for songwriters whose repertoire is founded
on songs written in the pain of youth-- as one matures and life
becomes less confusing, are the sources of lyrics less plentiful?
Teng tackles both these
issues admirably on Warm Strangers, her sophomore release.
Teng preserves her most distinctive quality as a musician--- her
gentle, delicate piano playing. Her soothing piano work is complemented
by an equally delicate voice, evocative of
Suzanne Vega. Working with producer David Henry, Warm Strangers
layers a rich and varied assortment of instruments and vocals harmonies
over Teng's distinctively sparse sound.
She also completely inverts
her approach to lyric writing on this second album. Rather than
digging into her own soul for lyrics, Teng takes her inspiration
from the world outside herself, whether it be fictional characters
or the people surrounding her. Free of angst, Teng has undertaken
a formidable task: to write a set of happy songs, which are also
songs of substance. Many artists have successful written about sadness
in attention-gripping detail, but to have the same effect with happy
songs is a rare feat.
The result is an album
that can be alternately be calming or uplifting. The songs on Warm
Strangers may not leave the listener with as much to brood over
while pouring through the lyric sheets. But they do soothe and inspire
the listener without ever lowering their level of literacy--- and
that's an accomplishment.
the first track on the album, is a standout. It feels more like
a poem set to music than a conventional pop song--- rather than
telling a story or simply describing emotions, the lyrics evoke
a set of images: Feather moon / Scarlet sky / Living clouds /
Blinded my eye / Waters black / Wood in snow / Dead of night / How
bright you glow. The accompanying instrumental parts are minimalist
but dramatic, bringing Teng's classical sensibility to fruition
in the album with great success.
Feather Moon is
one of several instances on the album in which Teng recalls a technique
specifically employed by Tori
Amos. Feather Moon is a slow, dramatic song, which intentionally
bucks conventional pop music structure. Using such a song to "bookend"
an album (as its first track) recalls Amos's Yes, Anastasia
or Pandora's Aquarium, songs which share those qualities
and served as album closers.
Teng also harkens Amos's
Me And A Gun in Passage--- both are a cappella songs
about traumatic events, placed second-to-last on their respective
albums. However, Teng puts her own stamp on it by singing of a tragedy
that she could not personally have experienced - that is, from the
point of view of a person who had died in a car accident many months
or years ago. Thus, she makes a marked departure from Amos's song,
which is pure, unedited autobiography.
highlight of the album, is a richly-produced track whose layered
vocals and soaring strings successfully convey the song's message
of hopefulness: The light in me will guide you home / All I want
is to be your harbor.
Another experiment in
rich production is Hope On Fire, a song that finds Teng's
classical style infused with a more rock-oriented sound. Teng's
delicate voice will never be a truly at home within a rock song,
but she carries it off by staying true to the essence of her style.
She maintains classical elements such as piano, strings, and vocal
harmony as prominent elements of her sound, so that Hope On Fire
is still undeniably a Vienna Teng song.
The rest of the album
provide a healthy sampling of Teng in her most comfortable vein:
even-keeled, soothing piano ballads, such as Shine and Anna
Rose. Through these songs she tells the stories of many characters,
from those drawn from classical literature (My Medea) to
a modern young woman whose day finds her slugging down coffee and
fending off clinic protesters (Shasta (Carrie's Song)). This
album will be a welcome addition to any Teng fan who appreciates
her distinctive sound, as she dabbles in new approaches both to
musical production and to storytelling.